Genre fiction is usually not considered a literary form. Scholars like to say genre offers nothing but cheap entertainment. According to them, it doesn’t speak deeply to readers the same way literary fiction does, but I’m here to prove them wrong. Bring on the debate!

What’s Different About Genre Fiction?

Genre fiction is also known as popular or mainstream fiction. It is often plot-driven and intended to fit into a specific genre. Seems straightforward, but these fiction genres are often pretty distinctive.

Genre includes categories such as sci-fi, horror, romance, and mystery, to name just a few.  Each genre has a set of conventions that define it. These conventions include character tropes, common settings, and expected events. Typical genre fiction follows these conventions because that’s what fans of a particular genre know and enjoy about it.

These conventions set genre fiction apart from literary fiction. Because of this, critics argue genre fiction is only for entertainment.

But there are countless stories that fit within a genre to an extent, yet break through the conventions.

More writers are attempting to make genre literary. But Arthur Krystal of The New Yorker still stands by the distinctions.

Zombies are People, Too

We’re not supposed to pick up any sci-fi novel on the shelf and expect an emotional example of the human experience. But why not?

Genre fiction is not typically considered socially impactful. Critics don’t expect genre fiction to make social commentary or explore the human condition. They argue that literary fiction focuses on theme rather than plot. But that doesn’t mean good genre fiction can’t do this, too.

Genre fiction often takes place in a different world or skews reality in some way. But the characters and literary themes are what set a quality story apart from a generic one. Characters that exhibit truly human characteristics, or speak to us on a deep level, determine if a story is literary.

That’s the key to literary fiction. A story that focuses on character, discusses real human issues, gives the reader a critical look at their world–that’s literary. And who says this can’t be achieved in an alternate universe? It can, and it is.

Break into applause. This article by the Peabody Institute Library has the right idea about genre fiction as literary.

Our World is Their World

Sometimes we understand ourselves better when we’re looking at someone else. Genre fiction is just like that.

We’re jaded by normality. We sometimes lose the ability to have a different perspective of our own world. But if a character lives in a dystopian world in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, these issues become more recognizable. Basically, genre fiction gives us a different perspective to the issues that exist in the real world.

Literature demands we reassess the issues, or analyze why they exist at all. If genre fiction allows us to do this, why shouldn’t it be considered literary?

Literary Genre Fiction in Action

So what genre novels are actually literary? There are several examples of genre fiction stories with literary merit. Here’s a few novels that are published in a specific genre, but discuss very literary concepts:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

frankensteinShelley’s Frankenstein is a classic novel, rich with gothic romantic elements. Horror, science fiction, whatever you want to call it. This novel fits several genres. Frankenstein is, however, considered a work of literature. Which is an appropriate label, of course.

Victor Frankenstein is obsessed with knowledge, and realizes that creating a living creature is the greatest power of all. Perhaps this could even be the key to immortality.

But he struggles with taking responsibility for the monster he brought to life. He is terrified of the power of his own knowledge.

Frankenstein uses a number of literary subjects, including:

  • Issues of human psychology and mortality
  • The terrors of knowledge and science in a time when knowledge was quickly expanding
  • Fear of death
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Questionable morals

So many literary devices are at work in this novel, but we can’t overlook the genres that it shares themes with.

The Shining by Stephen King

shiningSome people will argue The Shining isn’t literary at all. But here are some of the most prominent literary themes in this novel:

  • Strained family relations
  • Psychology of addiction
  • Questionable morals
  • Madness and fear of madness
  • Societal pressures

These subjects are literary because they’re relatable and human.

Jack loves his family, and is ashamed of his alcoholism that has caused strain between them. He’s pressured by his agent to write a successful work, and convinces himself that this work could make or break his fragile family ties. But the overwhelming fear of failure and addiction weighs heavily on his mind.

The Shining is true to its horror genre. Is it entertaining? Yes. Is it horrifying? Yes. Does it have an intense plot? Yes. But it’s more than that. The horror genre doesn’t take away the literary aspect of the story. Instead, it enables the story to show the terrors of the human mind.

The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey

tgwatgCasual readers and critics alike have praised The Girl with all the Gifts, and I recently grabbed the book for myself. This book is technically a zombie apocalypse story, in its broadest genre definition. Lots of sci-fi elements, too. But I’ve discussed it with an editor, and we both agree it’s overflowing with literary themes.

The main theme of the story is to discover what it means to be human. The characters struggle with the definition of human, like what defines human beyond physical characteristics. This issue is possible to discuss because it’s presented within a dystopian, post-infection world.

The story’s main character is a young girl who is–believe it or not–a zombie (and no, don’t think about Warm Bodies). This young girl is considered highly intelligent for an infected human–or is she no longer truly human? That’s the problem this story tries to solve.

Some literary devices in this novel include:

  • Questioning humanity and the human experience
  • Controversial practices
  • Moral obligations
  • Examining one’s role in the world
  • Examination of survival

Sure. The question of what it means to be human could be discussed in another, non-genre way. But I don’t know that it would create the same impact.

Disclaimer: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Clearly, I’m a supporter of genre fiction, but I certainly don’t consider every work of fiction literary. Some genre really is just cheap entertainment, and that’s okay!

A story doesn’t always have to be literary. It can simply be fun to read, even if it doesn’t make a profound statement. But it’s not fair to say all genre fiction can’t be literary. Based on the examples above (and so many other stories), that just isn’t true.

As I said before, the characters set a quality story apart from a generic one. So before you grab the first horror novel on the shelf, do some research! See what critics are saying about it. Even read an excerpt to get an idea. If it’s more than just cheap entertainment, the author will emphasize character and literary themes.

If you’re still not convinced, here’s another way to look at it. Check out this article from The New Yorker about a better way to think of the genre debate.

For my fellow writers, don’t be afraid to write literary genre fiction. Some literary magazines will say no to an overtly sci-fi story, but others will be more accepting of stories that share some aspects of a genre. The key is to make sure the literary themes stand out above everything else.

The Review Review’s directory of literary magazines is worth looking at. Many of these magazines are interested in the strange, the dark, and the unconventional. Genre can be incorporated with literary themes to create these effects.

Duotrope is the best directory for literary magazines. You can search for genre magazines to literary magazines and everything in between. It’s tricky to find a magazine that wants to incorporate both genre and literary fiction, but Duotrope makes it possible.

Final Thoughts

Literary fiction leaves an impact on us. It pushes the issues in front of us in a way we can’t ignore. But genre fiction shouldn’t be overlooked. It also has the potential to impact us in a literary way. Instead of judging a book by it’s cover, we should critically assess all works of fiction.

What’s your stance on the big debate? Leave me a comment! And if you’ve got a favorite literary novel, I’d love to learn about it.


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